Contesting French West Africa: Battles over Schools and the Colonial Order, 1900-1950

Contesting French West Africa: Battles over Schools and the Colonial Order, 1900-1950

by Harry Gamble
Contesting French West Africa: Battles over Schools and the Colonial Order, 1900-1950

Contesting French West Africa: Battles over Schools and the Colonial Order, 1900-1950

by Harry Gamble


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After the turn of the twentieth century, schools played a pivotal role in the construction of French West Africa. But as this dynamic, deeply researched study reveals, the expanding school system also became the site of escalating conflicts. As French authorities worked to develop truncated schools for colonial “subjects,” many African students and young elites framed educational projects of their own. Weaving together a complex narrative and rich variety of voices, Harry Gamble explores the high stakes of colonial education.

With the disruptions of World War II, contests soon took on new configurations. Seeking to forestall postwar challenges to colonial rule, French authorities showed a new willingness to envision broad reforms, in education as in other areas. Exploiting the new context of the Fourth Republic and the extension of citizenship, African politicians demanded an end to separate and inferior schools. Contesting French West Africa critically examines the move toward educational integration that took shape during the immediate postwar period. Growing linkages to the metropolitan school system ultimately had powerful impacts on the course of decolonization and the making of postcolonial Africa.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496202321
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 09/01/2017
Series: France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 372
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Harry Gamble is a professor of French and francophone studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. 


Read an Excerpt


Conflicting Visions

Framing French West Africa

As officials began to contemplate and plan the development of French West Africa, they had to contend immediately with the complex legacies of nineteenth-century colonialism. These legacies proved particularly strong along Senegal's Atlantic coast, where French influence stretched back several centuries. By the 1830s political rights had already begun to take root in the old settlements of Saint-Louis and Gorée. These rights eventually became more established during the second half of the nineteenth century, as urban centers along Senegal's coast became staging grounds for new French conquests in West Africa. Soon after the founding of the Third Republic, Saint-Louis, Gorée, Dakar, and Rufisque were reorganized as communes de plein exercise (full communes) and equipped with some of the institutions that defined the communes of metropolitan France. However, while the Four Communes harbored small but growing numbers of rights-bearing Africans, the rest of France's expanding West African empire was increasingly predicated on hardening notions of African subjecthood.

The first two chapters of this book investigate the conflicts that erupted as the rights-bearing originaires sought to negotiate their place within a colonial order grounded in stark contrasts between citizens and subjects. Given how central the originaires were to struggles over the developing colonial order, one can reasonably wonder why these populations have been relegated to the margins of many historical accounts of French West Africa. For years, G. Wesley Johnson's pioneering work The Emergence of Black Politics in Senegal remained a rather isolated study. Although his book begins by situating the originaires broadly within the nineteenth century, Johnson's main focus is on the transformations that reshaped these communities during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In several articles and book chapters Johnson has partially extended his analysis to the interwar period.

In recent years scholarly interest in the originaires has finally begun to pick up. However, newer work has tended to examine the originaires largely within the context of the second half of the nineteenth century. This sort of framing can reinforce the widely held view that the originaires were rather quickly pushed to the sidelines in the early twentieth century, as colonial authorities consolidated their hold over French West Africa. Studies of AOF often bring the originaires back into view when assessing World War I and its impacts. But even when it comes to the war, there is a tendency to recycle a rather tidy group of facts relating to political activism of Senegal's first black deputy, Blaise Diagne. With the end of the war, historical accounts tend to shift sharply away from Diagne and the originaires. Such treatment is rather surprising, given that the number of originaires grew steadily across the first two decades of the twentieth century, reaching eighteen thousand by 1921. Concentrated in some of the most central nodes of the colonial state, these populations represented a standing challenge to French projects.

Situating the Originaires

At the opening of the twentieth century the newness of the Federation of French West Africa contrasted with the long history of Senegal, France's oldest sub-Saharan colony. French involvement along the Senegalese coastline reached back all the way to the seventeenth century, when chartered companies first established comptoirs, or fortified trading posts, in Saint-Louis and on the island of Gorée. These coastalcomptoirs quickly became important nodes in the transatlantic slave trade, which flourished through the eighteenth century and continued into the early nineteenth century. As long as French involvement in West Africa was primarily oriented toward slaving, settlements remained largely confined to a handful of coastal enclaves. But with the progressive decline of slave trading during the first half of the nineteenth century, and France's official abolition of slavery in 1848, authorities soon began to experiment with new forms of colonization.

During the Second Empire (1852–70) Senegal's older towns became important staging areas for new territorial conquests stretching along the Senegalese coast and into interior regions. Spearheading many of these conquests was the ambitious Louis Faidherbe, who served as governor of Senegal from 1854 to 1861 and then again from 1863 to 1865. Although some of the newly conquered territories were placed under direct rule, most of the expanding colony of Senegal came to be organized differently, through protectorate agreements with African communities and states and a developing system of colonial administration. During Faidherbe's two stints as governor Senegal was transformed: from the old coastal enclaves, the colony's boundaries were extended far inland, following the Senegal River and other routes. As a sign of their growing strategic importance as established bridgeheads to a rapidly expanding colony, Senegal's most important coastal towns soon acquired new infrastructures and institutions, including schools.

In many ways the founding of the Third Republic in 1870 signaled even greater transformations in Senegal's towns. While republican authorities did not immediately push forward with further inland conquests, they quickly moved to reorganize Senegal's main urban centers. In 1872 Saint-Louis and Gorée-Dakar were administratively and politically recast as communes de plein exercise. The town of Rufisque acquired the same status in 1880, and in 1887 Dakar was split off from Gorée and established as a separate commune. These four towns were soon equipped with many of the institutions that helped to define metropolitan communes. Along with local French populations, the African inhabitants of these towns elected municipal councils, whose members went on to choose town mayors. Together, voters in these communes also elected a Conseil général du Sénégal (General Council), modeled after the bodies by the same name that existed in each department of metropolitan France. Beginning in 1871 voters in the Four Communes also began to elect a representative to the French Chamber of Deputies. Throughout the rather long life of the Third Republic, this would remain the only deputyship in French West Africa.

The creation of these metropolitan political institutions has led most scholars to view the Four Communes as a case study in the ideology and practice of assimilation. In reality, however, the situation in these towns remained considerably more ambiguous. Local colonial authorities expressed reservations early on about the creation of communes in Senegal. Moreover, after failing to prevent these reforms, colonial officials in Senegal actively sought to limit the influence of the Four Communes. By the 1890s officials were already pressing forward with plans to shrink the size of the territories placed under direct administration, through a process known as "disannexation." As a result of these measures the boundaries of the communes of Saint-Louis and Dakar were significantly trimmed. Colonial authorities increasingly found that they could rule more flexibly and expediently in the protectorate regions of Senegal (les pays de protectorat), where French legal norms and metropolitan-style political institutions did not hold sway. By contrast, rule in the Four Communes was coming to seem more complicated and contentious.

There are other factors that should prevent us from viewing the Four Communes as a straightforward case study in assimilation. Most important, these towns were equipped with some but not all of the institutions that defined communes in metropolitan France. In what was an important derogation from metropolitan norms, republican schools were never introduced in these communes. From the founding of the Third Republic to the first years of the twentieth century, schools in Senegal's coastal towns continued to be operated by Catholic missionaries and their congregations, which received direct subsidies from the colonial state. Given how fundamental republican schools became to the new regime in France, the decision not to extend metropolitan school legislation to the Four Communes raises important historical questions about the limits of assimilationist ideology and practice.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century the inhabitants of Senegal's communes were perhaps most defined by their in-betweenness: even as they developed urban modes of sociability and a certain familiarity with local French populations, many originaires maintained strong connections to interior regions of Senegal. These dual anchorings allowed the originaires to serve as important middlemen, who facilitated trade along the Senegal River and in the increasingly important peanut-growing regions closer to Dakar and Rufisque. Recent studies by Hilary Jones and David Robinson have underscored just how involved many originaires were in broad trading networks that stretched across Senegal and beyond. By the end of the century, however, the position of these middlemen had weakened, as French conquests of inland regions and improved transportation systems lessened the need for intermediaries who knew how to work on the fringes of empire.

As their roles in trading networks ebbed, the originaires turned increasingly to careers in colonial administration and local politics. During the 1880s and 1890s French officials had to contend with prominent mixed-race (métis) elites, who made steady inroads into local political institutions, particularly in Saint-Louis. For a time French officials maintained the upper hand, even as they shared political positions with the métis. However, by the turn of the century métis politicians were clearly becoming a more formidable political force. With the election of François Carpot to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1902, Senegal's mixed-race populations seized the colony's preeminent political position for the first time. Although French politicians still remained in charge of Dakar, Gorée, and Rufisque, local métis soon took control of both the municipal government in Saint-Louis and Senegal's General Council. As they observed the rising political fortunes of the métis, colonial authorities began to express growing misgivings about the originaires and their place within the expanding colonial order.

Demographic trends only added to mounting tensions between the originaires and the colonial administration. Prior to the founding of the Third Republic, the populations of Senegal's main towns had remained small. With some 15,000 inhabitants in 1865, Saint-Louis was by far the biggest urban center in Senegal. That same year Gorée's population stood at around 3,000. With tiny populations of around three hundred residents, Dakar and Rufisque could scarcely be classified as towns at all. However, the demographic profile of Senegal's coastal towns soon began to change. Dakar grew steadily during the last decades of the nineteenth century and even more rapidly after being named as the administrative capital of AOF in 1902 (see maps 3 and 4). By 1910 Dakar already boasted 24,914 residents, and the town's expansion showed no signs of slowing down. With its commercial port and central role in the peanut trade, Rufisque also took on new proportions, its population reaching 12,457 in 1910. Although the population of Saint-Louis grew more gradually, it nonetheless reached 22,093 by the same year. Histories of the young Federation of French West Africa tend to portray the Four Communes as awkward artifacts of the nineteenth century, whose influence was increasingly eclipsed as the new colonial order took shape. But rather than becoming marginal to the new colonial order, the Four Communes actually served as dynamic urban nodes, radiating out into interior regions. As they observed these trends, colonial authorities found new reasons to want to hem in the originaires.

By the first years of the twentieth century the Government General had become increasingly committed to developing a colonial framework that rested on stark distinctions between African subjects and French citizens. Although the corpus of administrative decrees and arrêtés that would eventually define the category of "subjects" was hardly complete, it was already clear that the latter would enjoy few if any of the rights of French citizens. As they worked to bring additional clarity to colonial frameworks, many French officials came to see the rights-bearing originaires as a standing challenge. But whereas colonial authorities moved to curtail the rights and influence of the originaires, these populations frequently found ways to reassert their positions and claims. Although these contests played out in any number of spheres, they became particularly pronounced in the field of education.

Inventing Colonial Education

With the rapid expansion of empire during the last decades of the nineteenth century, French officials came to think more about the education of conquered populations. Claiming a broad educational mission became one of the ways in which French authorities sought to justify colonial conquests, both to metropolitan populations and to international observers. Notwithstanding the high-flown rhetoric touting France's "civilizing mission," the fact remained that embryonic colonial administrations were often ill prepared to open and operate their own schools. During the late nineteenth century many of the schools that came to dot the empire were founded not by colonial administrations but by far-flung French missionary societies. In his insightful book An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880–1914, J. P. Daughton has shown just how active French missionaries remained in imperial settings. However, as Daughton makes clear, overseas missions and their schools routinely pursued their own agendas, often with little regard for the ideology of the early Third Republic or the practical needs of colonial rule. Elizabeth Foster has exposed a similar divide in her detailed study of tense and tenuous relations between missionaries and colonial officials in the Colony of Senegal. Relationships between missionary societies and colonial administrations grew more strained around the turn of the twentieth century, as church-state conflicts in metropolitan France intensified. When the Dreyfus Affair precipitated a new round of confrontations between anti-clericalists and clericalists, Left and Right, republicans and anti-republicans, the very foundations of the Third Republic trembled.

In the face of renewed challenges from the anti-republican right, government officials took a dimmer view of the various Catholic congregations that operated schools in metropolitan France. The position of these schools was called into question in 1901, when the government of Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau sponsored an important new law on associations. In many respects this law was liberal in spirit, since it established the right to form associations freely. However, the 1901 law also included a restrictive provision requiring all religious congregations to be officially authorized by the state. Unauthorized congregations, of which there were many, were given three months to request state approval. In the end government officials turned down almost all the requests that they received, prompting many teaching congregations to close down or to send their members abroad. A separate law, passed in 1904, went even further by banning — at least on paper — even recognized congregations from operating schools in France. The campaign to rein in écoles congréganistes deepened church-state antagonisms in France and helped to spur republican officials to seek broader solutions. It was in this tense context that the Chamber of Deputies eventually passed a far-reaching 1905 law providing for the separation of church and state.

In practice these church-state controversies were only partially exported to the empire, and even then, they tended to be more informed by local concerns and power dynamics than by metropolitan scripts. Moreover, by World War I there were clear signs of a rapprochement between missionaries and overseas colonial administrations. But in many cases the clampdown on écoles congréganistes that occurred in turn-of-the-century France did precipitate changes overseas. In various parts of the empire, colonial administrations sought to reduce their reliance on mission-run schools by founding, or consolidating, their own school systems. As we will see, officials in Dakar soon began to take important steps in this direction.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Conflicting Visions: Framing French West Africa
2. The Lessons of War: Rethinking the Originaires
3. Toward the Interior: Rural Schools and Colonial Reform
4. Reorienting African Schoolteachers: Agents of the Future
5. Léopold Sédar Senghor and the Popular Front: New Possibilities for Reform
6. The National Revolution in AOF: Debating the Future during the War Years
7. Gaullist Hesitations: From the Brazzaville Conference to the Liberation
8. The Education of African “Citizens”: Struggles over Integration

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